Archive for December, 2009

The Vanished Empire: Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll never looked so smart

December 26, 2009

Take one 18 year old guy who loves girls, jeans, beer, and rock-n-roll music; add a couple of buddies, a bleak home-front in flux, a potent blend of teenage angst/ennui, and the requisite beautiful girl: what do you get? You get a tried-and-true all-American coming of age story, right? Right, unless, like The Vanished Empire, the film happens to be set in the Soviet Union circa 1973.

Sergei (Aledsandr Lyapin) is the 18 year old scion of Russian intellectuals who does little more than show up for school. His real passion is running the drab streets of Moscow with his buddies Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) and Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) looking for black market rock albums and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Sergei is a handsome charmer  who thinks himself adroitly streetwise. However, all his charm is useless in the face of huge changes looming over the boy on the cusp. His grandfather lives in the past, his mother is ill, his father is absent, and the girl of his dreams (Lidiya Milyuzina) may not put up with his post adolescent stupidity for much longer.

The Vanished Empire is set in a Soviet Union looking at once backward to past glories and inconceivable horrors; and forward to an uncertain future lead by a generation who came of age longing for, and learning how to purchase, Western accoutrements. It seems the mighty Soviet propaganda machine could fend off everything except the Rolling Stones.

Since writer/director Karen Shakhnazarov graduated from the Moscow School for Cinematography in 1975, one can’t help feeling that The Vanished Empire is a first-hand account of the era when the first failings of unbridled communism reared up. In less than 20 years after the film’s mid ’70s perspective, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Sergei’s, and Shakhnazarov’s, generation would assume the arduous task of overseeing the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the chaotic rise of the ’90s era corrupt capitalist oligarchy in the midst of a burgeoning and unregulated free market (a not-so-gentle reminder that unbridled capitalism can be ugly too).

Sergei, the character, is the product of a line of University teachers, characters who also reflect their respective generational foibles. His ancient grandfather slouches through life on the back of past intellectual glories and failed theories. His mother is ill and his father is absent, the abject product of those failed theories. Sergei just wants to buy things, fight, and get laid.

The young actors are engaging. Lyapin is handsome with an overly confident swagger that belies his teenage uncertainty. His tenuous balancing act between boyhood and manhood is nuanced and consistent. Baranovsky is suitably understated as the loyal friend who patiently waits for his buddy to screw up just enough for him to make a play for the girl who, unfortunately, inhabits his dreams too.

Miyuzina, as the girl, steals a couple of scenes from the charismatic clutches of Lyapin, no easy task. Her turn as the object of all that post adolescent male dreaming is excellent work that’s easily lost beneath the energy of ornery boys careening through Moscow in a Czech made Tatra. Miyuzina gives a solid performance, but the boys have lots more to do.

The direction by veteran Russian filmmaker Shakhnazarov (Zero City and Jazzmen) is sure and steady. All the technical boxes are ticked and the art direction feels hauntingly accurate (the colorless Moscow streets actually verge on cliché, but that’s just me being overly critical). The story is familiar but with a twist of setting, both physical and temporal, that gives it new life.

Robert V. Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont opens his 1961 essay, “Intellectuals and the Russian Revolution,” with this salvo:

“The outstanding role of the intellectual in modern Russian history is beyond dispute. Among non-Communist historians there is a well-established consensus concerning the nature of the Russian intelligentsia and the distinctive part it played in bringing on the revolution.  The nineteenth-century Russian intellectual was detached from practical affairs, committed to some abstract doctrine, and morally alienated by autocracy and class privilege. This reaction resulted from the cultural precociousness of Russia’s westernized upper class, as contrasted with the frustrating backwardness of the government and the economy. Educated and sensitive Russians had nowhere to turn except to theory.”

It seems, according to Shakhnazarov, ’70s era educated Russians would turn instead to the black market.

With The Vanished Empire, Shakhnazarov takes an affectionate look back at the historical curve of the circumstance and impact of the Russian intelligentsia from these noble beginnings through the Soviet post war ideological wasteland and up to its impending spasms of cultural rebirth instigated by the ubiquitous black market consumerism of ’70s era Soviet youth. And he gets this all done under the guise of a simple teenage sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll flick. Nice work.


Best of the Decade

December 23, 2009

The best films I saw in the past ten years tended to be light on plot, heavy on texture and mood, and usually gorgeously photographed. Films include ones with strange worlds-within-worlds fictions, dreamlike stories, and a high kind of comedy that caused delight more than outright laughter.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000).

Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 2000) &Synecdoche, NY (Charlie Kaufmann, 2008). Both are Charlie Kaufmann movies; the second one, directed by the writer, wasn’t seen by enough people, but it is one of the three best films of the decade.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001). Arguably the decade’s best animated film.

Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001).

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). Leave out the last ten minutes and set aside the first 8 episodes of “Twin Peaks” and this is David Lynch’s best movie.

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2002).

Être et Avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002). A French teacher in his last year of teaching elementary school. The title means “To Be and To Have,” which sounds like philosophy until you realize that the moviemaker is showing us something that is usually entirely invisible, but deep: a great teacher opening up young people to learning.

Rivers and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2004). A portrait of the artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose work embraces erosion, change and impermanence.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2004). Imagine your family’s carton of movies being discovered and edited together, with a voiceover by Thomas Pynchon.

Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2004). Gus Van Sant in an existential mode: strange, lovely images of being lost.

Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005). Do we have a funnier comic performer than Vince Vaughn?

L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2005). The best of the decade from the Belgian brothers.

The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005). Painful observational comedy, it includes one of the decade’s best performances by Jeff Daniels.

Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006). No more beautiful movie was made in the past ten years.

Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006). A great Seattle filmmaker working at the level of Chris Marker.

24 City and Still Life Jia Khangke (2006, 2008). A friend reached for a phrase from Beckett to explain how the image itself digests time in this strange new naturalism from China.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007). Blown images and a story about the human will.

Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel, 2007). Part of the new wave in Argentina.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008).

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). Something in American film seemed to change when we watched the Joker make the pencil disappear.

Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2008). The film is slow story about a drunk isolato at the bottom of the world until it metamorphoses into a work of art.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009). Anderson’s best film.

A brief word on Perry Lorenzo

December 21, 2009

The Seattle arts community has suffered a deep loss with the death of Seattle Opera’s Perry Lorenzo. Please take a moment to read this memorial. You just might recognize the face from Perry’s many introductions of our opera and music related films. He was a thoughtful and committed arts educator – an inspiration for us all.

We are hiring!

December 21, 2009

House Manager

Northwest Film Forum seeks a house manager for front of the house, box office, concessions and public areas.

This is an important position in a busy arts organization in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The right candidate will have knowledge of office routines, working with the public, and overseeing volunteers and audience support facilities. He or she will have previous experience with most, if not all, of the following: running a box office, ticketing, nightly deposits and box office cash handling. This is a highly visible position and requires professional demeanor at all times, a history of building excellent customer relations, and experience with displays, upkeep and cleaning of public spaces.

This position is 26 hours per week, to begin mid-January. Please send letters of inquiry and resumes (digital only) to Lyall Bush at

Top 10 of 2009

December 16, 2009

I should make it perfectly clear that most of these titles won’t be released until 2010, but here’s my 10 best of 2009.

Mind you I’m full of superlatives for these, all cullled from films that I saw for the first time this year on the festival circuit and in cinemas.

1. Our Beloved Month of August With a lack of financing and cast the finest use of a film crew’s time.

2. The Anchorage Easily the most daring use of darkness in recent cinema.

3.  Let Each One Go Where He May Ben Russell’s gorgeous mix of Bela Tarr with Jean Rouch.

4. SHU An homage to Disney and James Benning all at once? Twelve of the most truly remarkable moments in cinema this year.

5. Police, Adjective – A dictionary of cinematic language on language itself. A cultural studies student’s wet dream!

6. Sweetgrass – The end of an epoch as documented in the final sheepherder drive into Montana’s Beartooth mountains.

7. Ne change rien – Pedro Costa does for Jeanne Balibar what he did for Vanda.

8. Historias Extraordinarias – Fresh, captivating, telling-while-showing narrative style renders the four-hour running time an attraction rather than deterrent.

9. Beeswax – Bujalski is Rohmer’s natural inheritor.

10. Redland – Hushed hues infusing Drepression era American rural isolation.

Screening of the other Yes Men movie at the Henry

December 15, 2009

For everyone who, like me, didn’t get enough of the Yes Men a couple weeks ago when we played The Yes Men Save the World, don’t miss this screening of the first Yes Men movie at the Henry Art Gallery. It’s all part of the same series marking the 10 year anniversary of the WTO protests in Seattle.

Screening: THE YES MEN

Thursday, December 17, 2009, 7:00 – 8:30 PM
Henry Auditorium
FREE Henry Members and students w/ID; $5 general admission

THE YES MEN (…THE FIRST MOVIE) (82 min, Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, 2005)

See the Yes Men’s new film, _The Yes Men Fix the World, at Northwest Film Forum and then come to the Henry for re-view of their first self-titled release. Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno parody the official website of the World Trade Organization ( with a mock site so convincing that visitors miss the ruse and start sending event invitations. With poker-faced impersonation as their weapon and corporate irresponsibility as their target, the Yes Men pull off a series of increasingly bold pranks.

Henry Art Gallery Associate Curator Sara Krajewski will introduce the film.


Presented by Henry Art Gallery, Community Alliance for Global Justice, Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, and Wallingford Neighbors for Peace and Justice.

Original 1969 reviews of “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “True Grit”

December 14, 2009

Better late than never!

Click for bigger images.

Credit: Film Quarterly v. 23 no. 1 (Fall 1969) p. 57

Once Upon a Time in the West
Variety Staff.  Variety Review Database.  New York:Jan 1969.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. Jan 1969

Henry Fonda and Jason Robards relish each screen minute as the heavies, and Charles Bronson plays Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ role.

Italy – US

Paramount/Rafran/San Marco. Director Sergio Leone; Producer Fulvio Morsella; Screenplay Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox; Camera Tonino Delli Colli; Editor Nino Baragli; Music Ennio Morricone; Art Director Carlo Simi

Henry Fonda and Jason Robards relish each screen minute as the heavies, and Charles Bronson plays Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ role.

Leone’s story here [from one by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and himself], presented in broad strokes through careful interconnection of set-piece action, focuses on the various reactions of four people – the three male leads, plus Claudia Cardinale, extremely effective as a fancy lady from New Orleans – to the idea of garnering extreme wealth via ownership of a crucial watertown on the route of the transcontinental railroad.

The paradoxical, but honest ‘fun’ aspect of Leone’s previous preoccupation with elaborately-stylized violence is here unconvincingly asking for consideration in a new ‘moral’ light. This means that Leone’s own special talent for playing with film ideas gets lost in a no man’s land of the merely initiative.

Stasiland, 20 years after: an essay by Tom Tangney

December 14, 2009

Many thanks to KIRO’s Tom Tangney for his permission to re-post this essay in connection with our ongoing Divided Cinema series (which runs through this Wednesday, December 16).  Tom was among a handful of American journalists who visited Berlin in October on a RIAS/Berlin fellowship.

Stasiland, 20 years after – the visible made invisible, and vice versa.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, Rome has the Coliseum and Berlin, like it or not, has its Wall. Despite centuries of rich political and cultural history, Germany’s capital city is still probably best known for those 97 miles of barbed wire (and eventually, reinforced concrete) that divided and isolated Berlin for almost 30 years. And that will no doubt remain the case for at least another generation or two.

Despite this past month’s major hoopla over the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most striking thing about this particular symbol of Berlin is its absence. It speaks to the power of the imaginative hold the Wall had over not only Berlin but also the world that its presence still captivates decades after its disappearance.

Like most every other major city in the world, Berlin is grappling with how to preserve its unique past without strangling its growth and progress. Europeans are especially sensitive to the dangers of “Disneyfication,” whereby their homelands become carefully preserved historical playgrounds for tourists the world over. It’s going too far to suggest that great metropolises like Paris and London are held hostage to the demands of their spendy visitors, but the power brokers there certainly recognize the financial benefits of keeping their History front and center. The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and the centuries of accumulated royal trappings are certainly central to an outsider’s image of England’s capital city. And that goes double for Paris, what with its Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum and its centuries of accumulated cultural and artistic trappings.

But these symbols of national heritage are not just for tourists. They’re also highly prized by the town’s inhabitants. They’re markers of civic pride and social identity. They help the citizenry define itself.

That’s what makes the case of Berlin so particular and piquant. Of all the capitals of the world, is there any with a more troublesome or problematic 20th century past? As many historians have noted, so horrific were the 12 years of National Socialism that they threaten to permanently color, if not actually wipe out, centuries of German history in the minds of most everyone now alive. And to have the monstrosity of Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust followed immediately by the Soviet-controlled experiment called the German Democratic Republic, one has to seriously wonder how Germans in general and Berliners in particular can muster any civic pride at all.

If any capital has earned a sense of cataclysmically low self-esteem, it would seem to be Berlin. How much does the city want to remember, let alone commemorate, its Nazi past, for instance, or life behind the Iron Curtain in “Stasiland,” as journalist Anna Funder so sharply coined it? With a past as notorious as Germany’s, the danger is not in getting stuck in the past. It’s far more likely to be a denial of the past that could cripple this great city.

It’s preposterous, of course, to try to address such profound issues in such a short essay. But I hope to at least frame the complexities by looking at two striking examples now in evidence in Berlin: the startling ABSENCE of the Mauer (the Wall) and the powerful presence of the Hohenschonhausen prison. In a nice twist of historical irony, the once visible is now invisible, and the invisible now quite visible.

For the most part, all that remains of the Wall is a line of cobblestones through the heart of the city. It’s such a quiet marker that it goes unnoticed by the millions of pedestrians trampling over it as they rush hither and thither. The contrast is striking. What had been a nearly impregnable barrier to so many for so long is now traversed without a second thought. As I did my best to walk the Wall’s path through the city, I continually found myself disoriented enough to have to stop and check – now is this the East side and that the West? Twenty years after the Fall, it’s not so easy to tell. I’m sure I’m not the first visitor to Berlin who wished, if only momentarily, that the Wall was still standing in some form … as an aide-memoire to those of us in search of history. In fact, I can imagine someone like Christo or perhaps the artists at Tacheles organizing a massive performance art piece in which a lifesiize replica of the entire Berlin Wall would be reconstructed out of, say, cloth and strung along the path of the original wall. That’s too fanciful for most people, I’m sure, but I personally would have preferred that to the oversize dominoes that were used in the 20th anniversary celebration.

Although I was fortunate to have visited Berlin when the Wall was in full operation and been able to wander the streets of East Berlin on one memorable day, it’s still hard for me to imagine what life must have been like during those nearly 30 years of bi-section. I remember thinking at that time, in the late 70’s, how outlandish and unimaginable the Wall was, even as I leaned up against it. And with each passing year, it gets harder and harder to imagine and/or accept that reality. The further away I get from my specific memory of it and of the fall of the Wall itself, the more it becomes as unreal (or real) as an episode of THE PRISONER, that classic TV series of paranoia.

Berliners have a complicated relationship with the Wall. As a quite literal symbol of oppression, the Wall was so hated, on both sides, that once it was breached, it seemed to fall down by itself. The rage over the Wall eventually consumed it. You can hardly blame Berliners, East and West, for wanting to obliterate every scrap and remnant of the hated divider. Twenty years later, I suppose it’s to Berlin’s credit, that any stretches of the Wall persist at all. Curiously, it’s Checkpoint Charlie and not the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing that’s best memorialized. After all, it was Bornholmer that served as the border crossing for Germans, not Charlie (which was restricted to non-Germans.) Perhaps because it has always been a privately funded endeavor, the preserved Checkpoint Charlie station and accompanying museum has become a major tourist attraction, catering primarily to tourists, I suspect. Its excellent if somewhat rickety museum still bears the stamp of its origins in the early 1960’s. No better holdings exist of the various (and all rather amazing) means of escape under, over, and through the Wall.

By contrast, Bornholmer, where thousands of East Berliners first crossed over into West Berlin that fateful night of November 7, 1989, has nothing more than a pop art bench and a non-descript stone marker by the side of the road to acknowledge the historical significance of the place. It’s now such a quiet, almost pastoral place, it’s hard to imagine this was where the sixteen year-old girl featured in the book “Stasiland” was tracked down and caught at the very edge of the “death strip,” just inches from freedom and the prospect of a very different life than the life she ended up with in a Stasi prison. But this rather more subdued approach may be the way most Berliners prefer to remember. For them, the Wall is a matter of historical record but no longer a pre-occupation.

This is not to say Berliners are in any state of denial over the Wall. As a people, I can’t imagine how Germans could say mea culpa any more than they already have for their hand in many of the major horrors of the 20th century. And the Wall is well-memorialized on Bernauer Strasse with the block long preservation of the original Wall and its corresponding death strip, an extensive Berlin Wall Documentation Center across the street, and the Evangelical Reconciliation Church rebuilt on the spot where its previous incarnation once stood in the middle of said death strip. Nearby, there’s even an outdoor stainless steel sculpture of East German soldier Conrad Schumann making his famous leap over the barbed wire into West Berlin. There’s also a small Wall park and a lengthy stretch of wall known as the East Side Gallery, which features Wall Art created post-Fall. And finally, occasional swaths of the Wall crop up in the most unexpected places – some are covered in ivy and apparently forgotten, others form the back walls of cemeteries, while still others seem to be backdrops for billboards and traffic signs.

In other words, The Berlin Wall still exists for those who want to seek it out but for all intents and purposes, it’s non-existent for those who don’t.
That may be the proper balance for Berlin to strike. There’s been a lot of talk about the “wall in the mind” that persists for some Germans, and a segment of the population even calls for the return of the Wall – mostly East Germans who nostalgically remember full employment and conveniently forget the Stasi. But the vast majority on both sides of the divide reject that notion outright. The most recent and intriguing call for the return of the Wall is from Dr. Rita Kuczynski, a German writer who says the Wall should have been left standing as a memorial, a commemoration in stone that would serve as “a resistance to amnesia.” As sympathetic as I may be to this line of thinking, the impracticality of such an idea makes it seem more like academic posturing than a real call for action.

If the Wall was the most visible manifestation of Germany’s division, the work of the Stasi was, obviously, the most invisible. When it became clear that
as many as one in seven East Germans were spying on their fellow citizens, that neighbors were reporting on neighbors, priests on parishioners and vice versa, that spouses even betrayed each other – it was a testament to the secrecy skills of the Stasi bureaucracy that the news stunned everyone, East Germans most of all.

The exposure of the Stasi machinery is the most important work (and accomplishment) of the reunited Germany. The destruction of the Wall was an understandably immediate priority – it satisfied the emotional needs of the time and its physical presence was a literal hindrance to the unification of Berlin.
But it was the dismantling of the operations of the GDR, and most notably the exposure of the Stasi apparatus, that did the most to pave the way for unification.

A good illustration of the institutional invisibility of Stasi operations is Hohenschonhausen Prison. This Stasi prison in northeastern Berlin was so well-hidden it didn’t even show up on East Berlin maps. Like many Stasi buildings, its map footprint was simply blacked out and never identified. So effective was this official invisibility that a one-time political prisoner there in the 1950’s says he had no idea where he had been held until after the fall of the Wall, 30 years later. Hans Eberhard Zahn, who at the time of his imprisonment was a West Berlin college student legally visiting East Berlin, is now in his 80’s but he gives tours of the prison to this day as a way to shed light and bring attention to the darkest underbelly of life in the GDR. His compelling account of the psychological torture he endured and his tales of how he combated it were made all the more poignant for being told to us from inside the very cell he was once imprisoned in. And when he began reciting for us the Shakespearean sonnet that he said helped keep him sane, he managed to covey to our group of jaded journalists a hint of the emotional costs of life in what he also called “Stasiland.”

The Hohenschonhausen Prison is now visible for all the world to see, but most importantly, for Berliners themselves. In addition to the daily tours of its once heavily guarded premises, the prison is even featured prominently in the Oscar-winning German film “The Lives of Others.” In his work as a prison guide, Hans Eberhard Zahn is the very embodiment of this so-called “resistance to amnesia.” He represents the living past. And as for the future, the most hopeful sign is this: schoolchildren now regularly tour this once most secret and awful manifestation of the German Democratic Republic. Those children are the best antidote to amnesia there is.

Original 1969 articles about “True Grit”

December 12, 2009

It’s the last weekend of 69!  And what better way to go out than with two monumental westerns?
I found some great original reviews of both True Grit and Once Upon a Time in the West, but alas, was out sick on Friday and didn’t get to post them in time for the screenings.

Instead, enjoy this profile of John Wayne as True Grit was released, as well as an interesting time capsule story about Paramount Pictures, slimming down it’s big-budget roadshow movie events to make way for higher grossing small films, like True Grit.

Look for more on Once Upon a Time on Monday.

True Grit plays Northwest Film Forum Sat-Sun at 6pm; Once Upon a Time in the West shows Sat-Sun at 8:30pm.

Click for bigger images. (PS. Check out the great Hirschfeld illustration! Can you find all three Ninas?)

December’s Indigenous Showcase: Raven Tales

December 11, 2009

Please join Longhouse Media

in partnership with National Geographic’s All Roads Film Project and Northwest Film Forum for the December Indigenous Showcase on

Saturday December 19th at 5pm

at the Northwest Film Forum for the screening of Raven Tales!

Raven Tales is the multiple  award-winning series of CGI (Computer-Generated Imaging) animated television/film programs, targeted at school-age children and their families. Starring Dr. Evan Adams, of Smoke Signals fame and winner of the AIFF Best Actor Award, Raven Tales features Native American folklore developed to appeal to a broad international audience in a contemporary, humorous and entertaining way. Raven Tales concentrates on the wild and funny adventures of Raven, the most powerful, and one might add, trickiest troublemaker of Native American folklore.

The Raven Tales centers its humor on the interactions of its re-occurring ensemble cast. The three principal characters, Raven, Eagle and Frog, anchor the show and provide familiar faces and humorous antics that feature widely in each episode. Along with the principle characters are a cast of humans, their children and a group of mythological creatures whose foibles and flaws give our heroes plenty to worry about. And with 10,000 years of market research to support them, these stories are surefire hits with any audience!

We look forward to seeing you there!